Animals — the meat in the Olympic sandwich

Pastoral nostalgia: people fretted about opening-ceremony animals but not the huge out-of-sight slaughter that’s feeding athletes and spectators. AAP/Dean Lewins

The role of animals in the Olympics — both during the opening ceremony and throughout the wider competition — is rightly generating controversy.

When it was first announced that non-human animals would be used in the opening ceremony there was considerable contention, especially among animal protection organisations. Twelve horses, three cows, two goats, 10 chickens, 10 ducks, nine geese, 70 sheep and three sheepdogs were used in the opening ceremony.

Just days before the big event, director Bill Morris admitted that he had not put adequate thought into how to safeguard the animals against noise and stress, until the problem was pointed out to him by animal activists.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said it understood the animals would be retired to a sanctuary after the event. It turns out that this is not the case. While the animals will not be eaten, they will continue to be used as exhibited animals for the remainder of their lives.

Having just come from London, a couple of things come to mind when I read about this issue. The first is that the inclusion of animals in the opening ceremony was intended to remind the audience of the Britain of yesteryear — the period of subsistence farming and the industrial revolution. The animals were exhibited to create an atmosphere of nostalgic charm.

Not so cute: the developed world has largely removed livestock and the facts of slaughter from its cities. Here a man in Manila carries a pig’s head home from market. AAP/EPA/Mike Alquinto

Indeed, I didn’t see any evidence of cows, goats, sheep or chickens as I walked around modern-day London. Cities in the developed world are now human-only or human-predominantly spaces. They rarely incorporate non-human animals. Yet, this was not always the case. Animals were once part of the cityscape, even in London. They were brought to city centres for slaughter and sale. But far from making cities cute, animal friendly environments, they made them chaotic and often filthy.

This is how Charles Dickens described London’s Smithfield Market in his classic book Oliver Twist (1838):

It was market-morning [at Smithfield Market]. The ground was covered, nearly ankle–deep, with filth and mire; a thick steam, perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney-tops, hung heavily above. All the pens in the centre of the large area, and as many temporary pens as could be crowded into the vacant space, were filled with sheep; tied up to posts by the gutter side were long lines of beasts and oxen, three or four deep. Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a mass; the whistling of drovers, the barking dogs, the bellowing and plunging of the oxen, the bleating of sheep, the grunting and squeaking of pigs, the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides; the ringing of bells and roar of voices, that issued from every public-house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant dim that resounded from every corner of the market; and the unwashed, unshaven, squalid, and dirty figures constantly running to and fro, and bursting in and out of the throng; rendered it a stunning and bewildering scene, which quite confounded the senses.

Historian Dorothee Brantz argues that the common perception that European cities were polluted environments during the modernising period is closely associated with the way animals were transformed into food close to the point of sale. She writes in her PhD thesis, Slaughter in the City: the Establishment of Public Abattoirs in Paris and Berlin, that:

Since meat production involved the killing of living creatures and the dismantling of their bodies, it inevitably generated strong smells, loud noise, and lots of blood and waste. When slaughterhouses were dispersed throughout the city, livestock were herded through the streets, blood flowed in the gutters, and animal parts often polluted rivers and alley ways. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century accounts of city life often referred to the stench and dirt of slaughterhouses when trying to describe the filth of urban living.

So while having animals on-hand makes them visible, if you wish to kill and eat the animals it will be a messy business indeed.

Of course, the organisers of the 2012 London Olympics will have very little mess to worry about. No more than 150 animals were part of the opening ceremony. While the inclusion of only a small number of animals is probably a blessing from the animals’ perspective (and probably all the organisers could cope with logistically) it also acts as a reminder that their inclusion was only symbolic and not at all a reflection on the true number of animals that will be part of the 2012 Olympics.

According to Olympic organisers, the following quantities of animal protein will be consumed by residents of the Olympic Village:

  • 82 tonnes of seafood
  • 31 tonnes of poultry items
  • 100 tonnes of meat
  • 75,000 litres of milk
  • 19 tonnes of eggs
  • 21 tonnes of cheese.

Hundreds of thousands more people will be watching the Olympics from the stands, many of whom will eat meat. The number of animals on display at the opening ceremony is, in fact, only a tiny fraction of the actual number of animals that will be used as part of the 2012 Olympics.

So the inclusion of animals in the opening ceremony leaves us with two ironies. The first is that having animals in cities during the early modern period was anything but quaint. Animals rendered modernising cities filthy and virtually unliveable; a point not well communicated by the opening ceremony.

The second is that the reason animals were brought into cities was to turn them into food. Yet the 150 odd animals used in the Olympics opening ceremony, while predominantly food animals, wouldn’t even feed half the athletes for a single day, let alone all the athletes, officials, and spectators who will actually be part of the 2012 London Olympics.

Thankfully for the sensibilities of the humans involved, the animals involved will be slaughtered far from the point of consumption. But this renders the animals that will actually fuel the Olympics out of sight - and most likely, out of mind.

Comments welcome below.